The man behind the beard: Q&A with Winemaker, Neil Collins

Editor's Note: This interview begins a series that we hope will help readers get to know the key people at Tablas Creek a little better. We're starting, appropriately, with Winemaker Neil Collins, who has made every vintage of Tablas Creek except 1997, when he was working at Beaucastel. If you have questions for Neil, please leave them in the comments.

By: Lauren Phelps

Neil is the Executive Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard and a busy man. He also makes the wines for his own label Lone Madrone, which is run by his sister Jackie and his wife Marci, and a growing line of traditional styled hard apple ciders (Bristols Cider) which you can taste at his new cider bar in Atascadero.  Neil’s blend of respect for tradition and willingness to experiment is integral to the spirit of Tablas Creek. We were proud to learn that he was named 2013 San Luis Obispo County Winemaker of the Year in an award voted on by his peers. 

I recently sat down with Neil and asked him a few questions about his life, what brought him into the wine industry and his vision for the future of Tablas Creek.

Winemaker Neil Collins Summer 2012

Neil, can you talk a bit about where you were born and what brought you to the States?

I was born and raised in Bristol England, the south-west of England. At that point there weren’t any vineyards, not really anyone making wine, a lot of wine was being consumed but traditionally it was not a wine country, now there is a lot of good wine and cider. I came to the States just to visit my sister Jackie in Santa Barbara for a six-week vacation and I never really left.


Can you tell us about how you met your wife Marci?

So when I ran out of money on my vacation and had to get a job I started working in the kitchen at a restaurant my sister opened with some friends of hers, it was called the Paradise Café in Santa Barbara. Then six months after I started working there, Marci started working in the kitchen and that’s where we met, we met in Paradise.


What began your interest in working with wine and what were your first experiences?

I was working in restaurants and began getting intrigued by wine and its production. The original intent was just to do a year in the cellar; harvest to harvest, to learn so I could understand wine better for the restaurant business. After the year long stint, I just kept going.  I started with Wild Horse during the 1991 harvest because the building at Adelaida was still in construction, so even though I got my job offer from Adelaida, I worked one harvest with Ken Volk at Wild Horse. Then after harvest in January of 1992 I moved to Adelaida where I stayed until March of 1997 working along side John Munch.  Then I went back to England for 6-months, then to France to Beaucastel for a year and finally to Tablas Creek.


Which winemakers have inspired you the most?

Paul Draper (Ridge Vineyards) has done an incredible job sticking by a great style. He makes great wine, very traditionally and he has stuck by that, his winemaking is meticulous and thorough and they ave great character. Obvously Jacques Perrin who is an inspiration to all of us here, Claude from Beaucastel, and of course I have an immense amount of respect for Ken Volk and John Munch (Le Cuvier), Josh Jensen (Calera), Bob Lindquist (Qupe). Ken Volk was instrumental since my first harvest and he was a great person to learn from because he incredibly throughout and diligent and super meticulous so it was a great foundation because I learned everything the right way. And then Munch is completely the opposite and willing to try anything, experiment and push things to the edge; which the two of those combined is fantastic because you get the complete spectrum and I can take the best from both.

Which is your favorite wine region?

At the moment? It changes, as of today I would say I really like the wines of the Loire Valley, the whites from Alsace and I like Gigondas a lot.

Have you been more drawn recently to whites or reds?

It’s seasonal; there are so many factors like the environment and food. I do like whites, they’re very intriguing. They’re much more transparent, less to hide behind. When they’re beautiful, they’re beautiful. There’s an elegance and balance with whites that’s not easy to accomplish and when it is achieved… well, when it’s really good it’s really good.


What is the story behind Tablas Creek En Gobelet?

So, that started with a desire to plant head-trained vines because we were interested in getting the Grenache to perform a bit better and since most of the great Grenaches of the world that I’m familiar with are head-trained vines, it seemed like a good connection. And then, that paired with our desire at Tablas Creek to make wines that are very reflective of this estate, my opinion would be that dry-farmed, head-trained vines are the purest expression of the given piece of land. So with all of those things combined that would be where the first plantings of head-trained vines came from.  We actually started with Mourvedre, not Grenache, in 1999.  When that kind of worked, we planted Scruffy Hill and it has proved, at least so far for us, to be a great way to farm and has produced very interesting wines that are unique and different from the other wines that we make.


What is the vision for the recently acquired 160 acre parcel?

The vision for the new property is very much inspired by the success of Scruffy Hill and it’s very similar terroir-wise. It has everything you could want; it’s steep, it faces in every direction and thre’s a kind of knoll in the middle. It’ll be planted 5 to 10 acres a year, at this point, all in the head-trained, dry-farmed style. That’s what we’re planning to start in the spring of 2016 with Grenache, Mourvedre and a little Roussanne.


How has the drought affected the vineyard?

It’s a concern, if it doesn’t rain this year, we’re anticipating that it will, but if it doesn’t, we’ll assess whether or not we’re going to plant the new property. We were going to plant late this summer and we decided that it just doesn’t make sense to get vines started in these conditions. So we put it off until spring of next year. Hopefully we’ll see some rain. We don’t need a lot, but we need something. Planting a dry-farmed vineyard in the 4th or 5th year of a drought is daring business.


Does the possibility of El Nino erosion concern you?

We’ve ordered more cover crop seed than usual and we’re going to get it into the ground earlier than normal. We’re going to get the compost in earlier as well. We’re bringing in more straw than we normally do to put on the steeper roadways. None of this is going to hurt if it doesn’t pan out to be what everyone says it will be.

NeilMarci


2015 International Grenache Day - The Cellar Crew Harvests Grenache

By Lauren Phelps

Today is International Grenache Day and enthusiasts are connecting all over the world and coming together to celebrate this unique grape. (For a fun overview, check out the #GrenacheDay hashtag on Twitter.) We celebrated by harvesting a half-acre block of our vineyard that was originally planted by our VINsider Wine Club members back in 2003.  The hands-on seminar focused on planting and vineyard care and gave members an opportunity to make an impact on the vineyard and wine we’re working with today.

Early this morning, Viticulturist Levi Glenn and his trusty vineyard dog Mavis collected samples from the block we call Grenache Noir Wine Club Head Pruned -- GNWCHP for short -- to test whether the lot was ready to pick.

Mavis Samples

Mavis is convinced; let's see what Neil Collins, Vineyard Manager and Executive Winemaker has to say.

Neil Sample

Neil used a refractometer to asses the sugar levels on the Grenache sample and decided we could harvest this block of estate Grenache.

Group Pick

Our cellar crew enjoyed a welcomed break from processing fruit and got to feel the sun on their faces as they picked Grenache in the vineyard this morning.

Grenache

The fruit looked spectacular and although yields looked light on this block, quality is fantastic!

Grapes with Hammer

We picked .75 tons from the head-pruned, dry-farmed lot.

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What a way to celebrate #Harvest2015 and International #GrenacheDay!  Cheers!


Mid-September Harvest Update: Why harvest started earlier than we predicted... and why our frighteningly low early yields may soon improve

Harvest, pushed by the last week of hot weather, has started to move fast.  We've brought in nearly 80% of the grapes for our Patelin de Tablas wines, and nearly finished our early white grapes (Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne) here off the estate.  Tuesday, we picked our first estate reds, with two lots of Syrah. The harvest board is growing:

Harvest board 9.11.15

You'll notice that most of the entries on the board are in purple chalk, indicating that they're from purchased fruit. This reflects that most of the vineyards that we buy from for the Patelin wines are ahead of our own estate.  It's also a reflection that the grapes on which we base our Patelin wines (Grenache/Viognier for the white, and Syrah/Grenache for the red) ripen at the earlier end of the spectrum, while our two most important grapes for our estate wines (Roussanne and Mourvedre) ripen late.

Why harvest began earlier than we'd predicted
In my veraison post and harvest preview,  I predicted an early September start to harvest based on our date of first veraison and the range of times in recent years between veraison and harvest.  (The exact range I'd predicted was between August 28th and September 7th.)  Instead, we began picking Viognier off our estate on August 26th. Why? First, August was the warmest on record in San Luis Obispo County. Second, our VIognier harvest was exceptionally light.  Off of 5.8 producing acres, we harvested just 5.5 tons, less than half of last year's pig-reduced crop.  The tiny yields weren't unexpected, but they are unprecedented, and it's unsurprising that the combination of low yields and hot weather resulted in our shortest-ever time between veraison and harvest.

Our only other estate grape to come in in August was Vermentino, which had its own yield issues.  We've only picked one block (our cross-hairs, or CH block) but that block, which produced nearly 10 tons last year, yielded just 3.71 tons this year.  If not for these two low-yield-accelerated blocks, my prediction for an early-September start to harvest would look better.

Ongoing concerns on yields
We've known since our first Patelin lots of Viognier arrived that the grape was going to be scant, due to the third year of drought and cool, wet weather when it was flowering. Vermentino, though, was a bit of a surprise, and when it came in so light, it started a mild panic in the cellar.  We do have two other (smaller) blocks of Vermentino still to be picked, but it's now an open question as to whether or not we'll have enough even to supply a wine club shipment for 2015.

And yet, some things look fine
There are a few elements that are allowing us a glimmer of hope despite the painfully low yields on the grapes we've mostly picked.  

First is that the cold, unsettled May that we believe impacted the yields of the early-flowering grapes does not appear to have had the same impact on the later grapes like Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Counoise.  These June-flowering grapes look, from our vineyard surveys and our cluster counts, to be more or less in line with last year's yields.

Second is that the head-trained, dry-farmed blocks look fine.  I was out on Scruffy Hill yesterday, which is all head-trained and dry-farmed, and the yields looked quite healthy, both in Grenache (below, left) and Mourvedre (below, right):

Scruffy Grenache

Scruffy Mourvedre

 

Third, quality looks super. It's easier to tell at this stage on the reds, where you can look at thickness of skins and depth of color, and the first estate reds we've gotten have been dark, chewy, and flavorful. The initial bins of Syrah off the estate, below, show it well:

Syrah in bin

Fourth, there are some Patelin vineyards whose yields have been fine, with excellent quality.  Take, for example, the Estrella Syrah that came in on 8/21 and 8/22.  We'd been hoping for 25 tons, to form the chunky, meaty core of the Patelin red. The vineyard was productive enough that they were able to get us 31 tons.  This has helped us mitigate the fact that many other vineyards are seeing lower (and often dramatically lower) yields.  This Syrah, in the press, looks and smells great:

Syrah in press

Looking forward
The next few weeks will give us a much clearer sense of what 2015 will look like on our own vineyard. We're picking Grenache today, and it looks like we'll have a steady stream of estate lots (Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, our first Roussanne, and maybe even a little Mourvedre) coming in shortly. Stay tuned.


Harvest 2015 update: just over 15% completed & yields are looking low

By: Lauren Phelps

In the cellar, things are in full-gear!

Sorting Tablas_Cube

According to veteran Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi harvest is already over 15% completed.  As of August 29th, we have worked with 65.82 tons of fruit.

Upright with Syrah_cube

The 1700 gallon French oak upright fermenters are all full fermenting Syrah for the 2015 Patelin de Tablas!

Harvest Sign First Estate_cube

Our first estate grapes were harvested on August 26th when we brought in about 3 tons of Viognier.  According to Viticulturist Levi Glenn, the estate Viognier yields appear down at least 50% due to the drought however, both acids and PH look great.

Mavis_cube

Levi's dog Mavis, vineyard dog extraordinaire, conducts a rigorous "lab test" of a bin of Viognier.

Although estate Viognier yields look low, Levi explains that "it's really more of a mixed bag.  Mourvedre and Roussanne both look a bit higher than normal".  In general, we're thrilled with the quality of fruit and a bit concerned since yields remind us of frost reduced years in 2001, 2009 and 2011.  We're waiting until we've harvested more from the estate to draw any firm conclusions.


Harvest 2015 begins and sounds alarm bells about yields

Today we welcomed into the cellar the first fruit of 2015: eight bins of Viognier from Fralich Vineyard, for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc.  And with that, the 2015 harvest is underway:

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Things look like they're moving pretty fast now, particularly after this past weekend saw temperatures soar into the low 100's both days.  It's cooled down since, but we're sampling most of the vineyards that we're expecting Syrah and Viognier from for Patelin and Patelin Blanc, and doing a first systematic pass through the same varieties in our own vineyard.  We'll get a little more fruit in tomorrow, then take a break to bottle the 2013 Esprit de Tablas before getting back at it next week.

It is wonderful to have the smell of new fruit in the cellar, particularly Viognier, which is as aromatic when it's newly picked as it is in the glass: honey and peaches and spice. And the fruit looked good.  But we were expecting something more like 15 bins today than the 8 we received. 

We expected that crop levels would be light in this fourth year of drought, and we know that some of the earlier grapes (notably Syrah and Viognier) were flowering during our unusually cool, breezy May.  These aren't ideal flowering conditions, and we've seen evidence of shatter in our own vineyard and from our expeditions to the vineyards we source from for Patelin.  But we were all taken by surprise by just how light this first pick turned out to be.

It is something of a maxim in vineyard analysis that when you see evidence of yields being light, they end up even lighter than you were thinking, while when you see evidence of heavier yields it ends up being even heavier than you expect.  And we have been seeing other evidence that yields will be light, from observations of lower cluster counts and smaller clusters to relatively high sugars and relatively high acids in our samples.  Perhaps less intuitively, further evidence is provided by the fact that the vines look notably healthy, when with heavier yields you would expect to see more signs of stress. 

So, I've been steeling myself for this news.  And with the Patelin, we have options; we have handshake agreements with several local vineyards that if we realize that we're light during harvest, they'll find some fruit for us.  We may not be able to make up all the difference, but we can bridge the gap a bit.  Those phone calls started this morning.

The estate vineyard, however, doesn't offer this recourse.  If we end up light, we just make less wine.  It's likely only another week before we find out the extent to which that will be true.

First day of harvest 2015 sign edited


Coming (soon) to Fruition

By Chelsea Franchi

Anticipation of harvest is a primal feeling.  It's a dichotomous sensation made up of a humming excitement, a nervousness that simmers just below the surface, and a light touch of hysteria.  We're anxious for the first fruit of harvest to come in, while at the same time, we're hoping we can push it off for a little bit longer.  By all accounts, it looks as though harvest from our property will commence early September - but, as this is agriculture and Mother Nature is at the helm, that's nothing more than our best guess.

In preparation for this epic time of year, all the members of the vineyard and cellar crew are drinking up time with their loved ones as though every second is a fleeting, delicious drop.  It's fortunate we have a team that gets along, as we'll be seeing their faces far more than those of our chosen partners in the months to come.  Weekend plans are a luxury afforded to the time before and after harvest, but not during.  Currently, we're relishing the feeling of getting into our cars dry and comfortable, after a work shift that lasts eight hours.  All of that will be changing in the coming weeks, when our horizon will look more like this:

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Our days are about to be filled with the whine of the must pump, the whir and tumble of the de-stemmer, and the rattle of the sorting table, all overlaid by the constant thumping music that was chosen by whoever arrived first and/or was thick-skinned enough to endure the inevitable complaints about their music selection from everyone around them (unless it's Thursday, because on Thursdays, we listen to R. Kelly and there can be no complaints.  Well, there can be complaints, but no one will listen.  They're about to be filled with wet heat and the sharp sting of carbon dioxide, both byproducts of fruit fermenting in tank and the deepest inhalations our lungs can handle every time we walk past the rosé tanks (I'm so looking forward to that smell!)  They're about to be filled with the most vibrant and ever-evolving selection of colors: from the bubble gum pink of counoise to the ox-blood red of syrah, from the electric green stems at the beginning of harvest to the golden, crackly leaves toward the end.  Harvest season is a true sensory overload - made even more overwhelming because all participants are exhausted in every sense of the word.

This job is unlike any other that I know of.  Yes, we work ourselves into the ground, but we do it with a common goal of making wines we're all undeniably proud of.  The team we've built shares the delight that's earned from crafting a product with one's own hands.  And there are times, too, when our job is just the way Hollywood portrays it.  There are long lunches on the crush pad, made from ingredients that were sourced from the property and slow cooked under the percipient eye of our Executive Winemaker/Vineyard Manager/Fearless Leader, Neil Collins, who just so happened to be a chef before turning his attention to the wine world.  These lunches are masterfully paired with beautiful wines, giving us a chance to remember, in the middle of the chaos, why it is that we do what we do.

For now, I plan on savoring my post-work gym routine (that's a laughable goal during harvest), my quiet meals at home with my husband, raucous weekends with friends and family, and the primal thrill I feel deep in my bones in anticipation of what's to come:

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Bring it on.


Notes from the Cellar: Blending the 2014 Vintage

By Chelsea Franchi

Here at Tablas Creek, when we sit down to decide on blends for the year, it's a big event.  At this point, a lot of work has been put into these wines and it's critical we bring our best to the blending table to ensure the wines show their best once in bottle.  Each and every wine we produce at Tablas Creek is created through a process we call "palate blending" - in which we taste every individual lot of wine in the cellar and blend it with other lots we believe to be complementary.  This is why the blends change on all of our wines from year to year.  Sometimes dramatically, sometimes not.

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To most, being forced to sit down and taste wines sounds like a dream (it is), but it's more than that.  During harvest, after everything is hand-picked by our detail-oriented and outrageously skilled vineyard crew, we ferment and age each pick separately.  This process is a lot more work (and takes up a lot more space in the cellar) but it allows us more creativity when it comes time to blend by giving us more options to choose from.  This year, we had 52 separate lots of reds to taste and 25 lots of white wines.  While I'm aware that tasting through these wines is a much more enjoyable task than, say, a four hour board meeting, there's a decent amount of pressure involved.  It's important to be fully present and aware for every single one of the 77 wines - personally, I have to keep detailed notes to compel (trick?) myself to stay focused.  My notes may include observations or feelings about the aroma, the palate, the structure (front, mid, finish), and anything I find striking or unusual.  The added benefit to this strategy is that I have reference notes when we're discussing the wines later (read: after tasting 77 wines; "it's lunch time, yes?")  Neil, on the other hand, will only write down a word or two about a handful of wines during the entire tasting, but when we deliberate over the wines days later, he can still recall, without fail, notes and nuances of each wine we tasted.  I'm not envious, I'm just... no, scratch that.  I'm envious.

We begin in the cellar.  For each individual lot, we pull an accurate composite of the wine.  So for instance, if we have a Grenache lot housed in a 132 gallon puncheon and a 60 gallon barrel, we need to make sure the sample we pull is 69% from the puncheon and 31% from the barrel.  This process can feel pretty tedious when you've got a single lot that's being aged in 19 barrels ("we couldn't have just put that together in a tank, huh?") but we prefer this method as it gives us a truer glimpse of the lot as a whole.  Later, when we're physically blending, we can barrel-select what we want in each specific wine, but for preliminary evaluation, we're looking at general character.

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"Okay, now pull 3 milliliters from each of these barrels"

Once the composites have been pulled, we set up in the conference room.  We'll typically pour a flight of four wines, taste them all, and then give them a numerical rating from 1-3.  A score of one means the wine is exceptional - it carries power and finesse in equal measure and has a ripeness that is tempered by balance.  These lots are the first to be set aside for Panoplie and Esprit when we start the blending process.  A score of two communicates that the wine is nice, but it's not going to be haunting your dreams.  Perhaps it would if it had a little more fullness on the mid-palate.  Maybe there's not quite enough acid on the finish.  Whatever the case, it's just not a one.  A score of three means the wine needs some work.  Usually, a wine is given this score because it's still fermenting and is cloudy, sprizty or sweet (or perhaps all three).  Reduction (the opposite of oxidation - cases where the wine needs oxygen) is another common culprit of wines given this score.  Sometimes we can work on these wines a little bit before starting the blending trials, and other times, it's necessary to simply imagine what the wine will be like after it's "fixed".  That's what makes us professionals, I've been told.

When everyone at the table has had a chance to smell, taste, spit, annotate and score each of the four wines, we go around the table and everyone shares their notes and their scores.  And so forth, through each flight, though typically something like 30 wines is about our limit for one day.  If we have more than that number, this first step stretches over multiple days.  I compile the scores into a very high-tech grid (shown below) that I'll use later when putting together possible blends.

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The next morning, we'll sit down with the score sheet and an inventory list to determine how much of each lot we have to move around to specific wines.  We'll begin with three different blends that showcase each of the components in turn.  Below, I've given an example of preliminary blending trials for Esprit de Tablas Blanc:

 

Blend 1

Blend 2

Blend 3

Roussanne

60%

75%

65%

Grenache Blanc

35%

15%

20%

Picpoul Blanc

5%

10%

15%

Keep in mind that within each of those individual varieties (Roussanne, for example), we're making blends.  We blended seven lots of Roussanne to get the base for the Esprit Blanc this year.  Even the varietal wines we produce are a blend of separate and unique lots within the same grape variety.  By making wines this way, it helps us to achieve not only varietal "correctness", but also to help showcase the vintage and make sure the wine is fleshed out from start to finish.

Once again, we'll taste through the wines, but this time rather than absolute scores, we give them rankings in order of preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc).  Looking at these rankings, we'll begin another round of blending, building around the elements we liked the most.  We'll continue this process until we have a wine everyone ranks in first place and says "YES!  That's it" and performs an an enthusiastic fist pump.  I've never seen it happen, but I'm almost positive it's just because everyone does it in their head.  Sometimes, the process of deciding takes a day or two.  Sometimes, it takes longer - one year, it took us a week and a half to get a consensus for Esprit Blanc.  That's a lot of days tasting slightly different variations of the same wine.  On the plus side, we got really good at pulling composite samples that year.  Each vintage, while presenting exciting elements, also comes with a whole new set of - shall we say - delightful challenges.

Once we've decided on the wine we're working on, we set aside those lots and focus on the next wine down the sequence. And so forth, until we've made all our blends and decided which varietal wines we'll make for the vintage.

This year, we had the good fortune of being given some outstanding lots to work with.  The 2014 harvest has shown itself as a bit of a tomboy vintage; it has a round, rich, powerful front that gives way to a beautiful lean acidity, lending the wines a feminine edge on the finish.  Blending in years like 2014 is only difficult because you can only use each wine once.  After finalizing the blends, we sit down one last time to taste through the whole vintage lineup.  This is my favorite part of the blending process - tasting through everything as you would in the tasting room and making sure each wine can not only stand on its own, but also set itself apart from each of the other wines.  Each year, one of the members of the Perrin family comes over for some part of the blending.  This year, it wasn't until the final tasting, when François Perrin came to town for a few days and we were able to show him the 2014 vintage as we'd envisioned it.  Tasting your wines through someone else's eyes can be a stressful experience (especially if you're trying to see them from a set of Perrin eyes), but this year, it felt like joy.  Each wine fit attractively and confidently into its specific program - the Patelin wines are charming, the Cotes wines are somehow both jubilant and sophisticated, the Esprit wines are... well, the Esprit wines are absolutely stunning, and the best way I can describe Panoplie is "richly elegant".  Though I think the wine I'm most thrilled with this year is the En Gobelet.  It has an enchanting energy and captivating voluptuousness that I'm dying to share at my table. We've just begun the process of getting these components put together in tank and I'm already excited to hear what you have to say about each of them.

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Mavis, the vineyard dog, helps with the physical blending


A first look at the 2014 white blends, and a vintage assessment

This week, we put together our white blends for 2014:

Blending 2014 whites - after

Typically, our blending weeks follow a consistent pattern. We start by tasting each lot, variety by variety, and giving them grades. [For an overview of our grading system, see this post by my dad from 2012.] This initial phase gives us an overview of the vintage's strengths and weaknesses, helps point out lots that need attention in the cellar, and suggests which lots are of a quality that they should be considered for the Esprit de Tablas.  This year, the white tasting included 4 Viognier lots, 5 Grenache Blanc lots, 2 lots each of Picpoul Blanc and Marsanne, and 10 lots of Roussanne. My notes:

Blending notes - 2014 whites

A good initial test of the vintage is the percentage of lots that receive our top grade (a "1" in this case). Somewhere around 40% is normal for us; this vintage I gave 13 of the 23 lots a "1" grade. The next thing I look at is what percentage of our total gallons of each grape get that top grade, which helps us know what the likely profile of our blends will be, and if there are lots whose friendliness and relative lack of depth suggest they're better suited for the Patelin than for our estate wines. This year, I gave "1" grades to 55% of our Roussanne, 72% of our Grenache Blanc, 23% of our Marsanne, 15% of our Viognier, and 100% of our Picpoul (I rated both of our lots a "1").  We did identify one Viognier lot for declassification into the Patelin Blanc.  The lineup of lots, on the bar on Monday, and below it, our flight of 5 different Grenache Blancs:

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Our next step is to blend the Esprit Blanc.  We typically start from the outside and work our way in.  We tasted blends between 60% and 80% Roussanne, 20% and 40% Grenache Blanc, and 0% and 10% Picpoul.  It took us two days, but we came to the conclusion that as good as the Grenache Blanc and Picpoul were this year (and both were excellent), because of the good acidity on Roussanne -- often a low-acid grape -- we didn't need as much of the others as it might have at first appeared.  We even toyed with the idea of eliminating Picpoul entirely and focusing on the richness of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, but in the end decided that the tropical fruitiness of Picpoul, which came through appealingly even at just 5% of the final blend, was of value to the finished wine even if the acidity was OK without it.  Our (tentatively) final Esprit Blanc blend: 72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, and 5% Picpoul Blanc.

We then turned our focus to the Cotes Blanc, having removed from consideration the lots earmarked for the Esprit Blanc.  This is typically an easier process, because we have fewer options in front of us.  We knew at this point that because we had declassified one Viognier lot to Patelin, we weren't going to make a varietal Viognier.  So, we knew the Viognier base that would form the core of the wine.  Our questions were at that point to decide the relative proportions of the Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne, and over two days, we decided to keep the Roussanne percentage low, both because we want the wine to be different from the Esprit, and because too much Roussanne, added to the rich Viognier base, seemed to make the wines too heavy.  In the end, our chosen blend was 42% Viognier, 30% Grenache Blanc, 23% Marsanne, and 5% Roussanne.

The blending session also made clear that we'll have some knockout varietal wines this year, in pretty decent quantities.  We decided against making a Viognier, but the Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Picpoul Blanc should all be terrific.

This was just the first of three blending weeks on our calendar.  We'll reconvene week-after-next to repeat the process with the red lots, and then welcome Francois Perrin to the vineyard two weeks after that to get his take on everything we think we've decided. But even after just one week, it's clear that the raw materials are exceptional. I asked Neil to summarize his impressions of 2014 at this point, and his answer ("a lot of depth, and great acidity") is about as good a starting point as we could want.


Harvest 2014 Recap: Yields up 5.2% (though still below average); Quality excellent

On Wednesday, October 15th we picked the last batch of Roussanne off of our estate.  And just like that, we're done picking for the year.  It doesn't feel like we're finished, as we're still pressing off bins of reds, the cellar still smells like crush, and the vineyard's colors are still more green than gold -- it is only mid-October, after all -- but there's no more fruit to pick.  From Wednesday:

Last Day of Harvest

As we've progressed through this harvest, we have been comparing it to similar vintages with relatively low yields and high quality, like 2003, 2007 and 2013.  Now that everything is in, we have a chance to look quantitatively and see whether these comparisons have merit.  Of course, there are things that can't be easily measured (think color, or thickness of skins) but knowing how much fruit you have and how ripe it is, overall, gives us a good tool for knowing what the vintage will be like.  And it's not surprising; yields per acre and ripeness at harvest tell you critical things like skin-to-juice and sugar-to-acid ratios.

Somewhat to our surprise, given that we're in our third year of drought, yields were on average actually up a little from 2013. For our principal grapes:

Grape2013 Yields (tons)2014 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 16.7 11.4 -31.7%
Marsanne 8.2 9.9 +20.7%
Grenache Blanc 25.4 31.9 +25.6%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 7.5 +44.2%
Vermentino 15.1 17.3 +14.6%
Roussanne 44.5 42.8 -3.8%
Total Whites 115.1 120.8
+5.0%
Grenache 48.7 50.7 +4.1%
Syrah 32.5 38.1 +17.2%
Mourvedre 57.3 52.3 -8.7%
Tannat 12.3 15.4 +25.2%
Counoise 13.9 17.0 +22.3%
Total Reds 164.7 173.5
5.4%
Total 279.8 294.3 +5.2%

Most varieties are up a bit, with the exceptions of Mourvedre and Roussanne, our two latest-ripening varieties, and the two grapes most susceptible to late-season stress-related devigoration.  So, it's perhaps unsurprising that both showed declines in this dry year.  The third grape to see a decline (Viognier) came from a much more discrete cause: we had several nights of break-ins by wild pigs toward the beginning of harvest, and they of course went straight for Viognier, the ripest (read: earliest-ripening) grape.

Overall yields ended up at 2.78 tons per acre, which is still just below our ten-year average of 2.9 tons per acre.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2013, all of which have been excellent and have been aging very well.

Looking at average sugars and pH at harvest gives a quick way of measuring a year's ripeness.  Since 2007:

YearAvg. SugarsAvg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59

Both of these measures show the subtle differences between 2014 and a year like 2013, corroborating what we noticed: that the level of lushness this year (our highest average sugars since 2009) was counterbalanced by good acids (better than all our recent vintages except the historically cool 2010 and 2011 vintages).  It also suggests that the narrative we're hearing from many California appellations -- that acids were extremely low this year, requiring significant intervention in the cellar -- didn't hold true for us.  Finally, it's a good indication that we were able to keep up with the pressure in mid-September, when so much of the vineyard seemed like it was ready, and that we got fruit off the vine while it still maintained natural freshness.

In character, we see many similarities to 2013, with the characteristic dark color and intense flavors of a low-yielding vintage, but with a little more overt fruit than the more savory 2013s.  Fans of the lusher style our wines featured in the 2007-2009 period will likely find many similarities.  Clusters and berries were very small, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  My dad holds up a cluster each of (from left) Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre from late-September, when all three were arriving in the cellar simultaneously:

004

Of course, it's early to make predictions on flavors, so stay tuned in the spring, when we'll dive into the vintage's character in preparation for our blending trials.

At 53 days between its August 23rd beginning and its October 15th conclusion, this harvest clocks as a bit shorter than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and our finish was one of our earliest on record, preceded this century only by last year's October 7th end.  It joins 2013 as our only vintages where we finished harvesting before the Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend.

Our main challenge, as things finished up, was Roussanne, and it's with this notoriously finicky grape that I think the meticulous work of our vineyard team will show the most.  Roussanne, even in the best of conditions, tends to ripen unevenly, requiring that we go through each block multiple times to pick what's ripe and give the other clusters some more time to mature.  Roussanne is also the variety most prone to stress-related devigoration, where the leaves lose chlorophyll and ripening slows toward the end of harvest.  Not every vine is affected to the same degree, so you can have mostly-green vines next to those that are largely yellow, with predictably faster ripening on the greener vines.  In this exceptionally stressful year, we knew we would have to be willing to go back repeatedly through our Roussanne blocks if we hoped to get most of the fruit harvested in good condition.  But even by Roussanne's normal standards, this year was a slog.  As an example, we made a first pass through the Roussanne block we still call our "New Hill" (since it was planted in 2000 rather than 1995-1997) on September 4th.  We made our next passes on September 18th and October 2nd.  Still, nearly half the fruit remained.  We went through again on October 7th, and a final pick -- our last pick of the harvest -- on October 16th. It's a good thing Roussanne is so rewarding in the cellar.  If it weren't, no one would deal with its quirks. The culprit, looking deceptively placid in early October:

Roussanne mid-September 2

 

And while we're early to be done with harvest, the cooler nights and the shorter days are beginning to bring out the fall colors in the vineyard.  I take a photo from this vantage point nearly every year because it shows two grapes that both color up in the fall: Tannat, in the foreground, and Syrah, on the hillside behind.

Fall foliage 2

Now that we're done with picking, we're able to get our animal herd back into the vineyard.  They can clean up any second crop clusters we left behind, as well as start getting some natural fertilizer into the soil in advance of what we're hoping will be a wet winter.  Dottie, one of our guard donkeys, is enjoying a snack of Marsanne before it goes dormant: 

Dottie back in the vineyard

And as for that rain, we're feeling hopeful that the series of Pacific fronts that have blown through Paso Robles over the last two weeks -- dry though they were, this early in the season -- bode well for winter. In many years, it's still hot and summer-like in mid-October.  These last two weeks have felt like fall.  If that promise carries through to real rain, we'll all have reason to celebrate.


Near-End-of-Harvest Assessment: A Furious September, Moderate Yields, Quality High

In the vineyard, things are starting to look genuinely fall-like:

Fall foliage 2

And in keeping with the visuals of the season, we're on the tail end of our harvest craziness, something like 85% done.  As of the beginning of this week, we'd harvested 386 tons: 237 from our estate and another 149 for the Patelin.  What was left was one good block of Mourvedre (picked today), scraps of the other reds (all of which should be cleaned up by the end of this week), our three small blocks of Tannat (likely to be harvested this and next week), and a good chunk of Roussanne (which will likely be picked in waves into the middle of October; more on that later). 

The pace at which we harvested fruit off our estate in September was remarkable.  After a relatively slow beginning to harvest (which I discussed on the blog) things picked up serious steam the first week of September, and are only now starting to slow down. It's perhaps easiest to look at it graphically, showing tons of fruit, estate and Patelin, per week:

Harvest 2014 by week

In many ways, this vintage is shaping up like 2013: it's been a warm year without many heat spikes, we've picked 10 days or 2 weeks early on average, it's a slightly below-average vintage for yields, and looks very high for quality.  But unlike 2013, our shortest harvest in a decade, we're likely going to see a more normal full two months between the first and last fruit off our estate.  Still, August's slow beginning and October's gradual taper will together account for less than 20% of the harvest, meaning our September peak was one of our busiest periods ever. How busy? The busiest week of 2013 saw us bring in 58 tons off of our estate.  Even in 2012, our largest crush ever, no week ever reached the 79 tons we harvested the week of September 15th.  And the week of September 8th had already filled the cellar with 70 new tons of fruit.

So, it's not surprising that we felt buried by grapes.  We've managed to fit everything into the cellar (more of a challenge than you'd think, given that we typically use a fermentation tank for 5 or 6 sequential lots at harvest -- leaving each lot in the fermenter for some 10 days -- and having nearly all our fruit come in during a 30-day sprint effectively halves our fermentation space).  Between the couple of new upright wooden tanks we added last year and a few open-top stainless steel fermenters we hadn't used in a few harvests, we've made it work.  The cellar, though, is as full of different fermentation tanks as I've ever seen it:

Full cellar

Yields look very similar to last year.  Of the non-Roussanne whites, we've harvested 68.7 tons.  Last year saw us bring in 65.4 tons.  Of the Rhone reds, at week's beginning we'd brought in 134.5 tons.  Last year we finished up with 151.5, but we estimate we've got another dozen tons or so that will trickle in, meaning we'll end up very close to last year's totals.  Maybe up a touch in Syrah and Counoise, and down slightly in Mourvedre and Grenache. 

The real question for us is Roussanne.  This always-challenging grape is being difficult even by its standards this year.  We've gone through our principal Roussanne blocks twice already, picking just the ripe clusters, netting a little over 10 tons.  We have another selective pick scheduled for tomorrow, and are expecting another 4 tons or so.  Still, we're a long way from done.  Last year, we harvested 44 tons of Roussanne, accounting for about 40% of our white production.  This year, there are a higher than normal number of Roussanne vines that are starting to shut down due to stress, which means that the clusters they carry are ripening more and more slowly.  We think that we'll still be able to harvest much (most?) of what's out there, but assuming that all of it will come in seems unreasonably optimistic.  We're hoping for 30 tons, total.  It seems unfair that the Roussanne looks as nice as it does on the vines, taunting us with its amber beauty despite not being ripe: 

Roussanne mid-September

So, we wait on Roussanne, and on Tannat, which is looking good but still mostly not quite there.  The colors of its foliage, though, suggest that the time is near: 

Tannat on the vine

In terms of quality, we continue to be excited by what we're seeing.  The berries seem unusually small, the flavors and colors correspondingly intense.  The grapes are a bit riper than they've been the last few years, but in good balance.  It's looking (dare I say it) a lot like 2007.

And that has to be a good thing.